Swamped: Trying to Save Fragile Bodies

Swamped: Trying to Save Fragile Bodies

by Molly M. Ginty

Soaring, slithering and swimming, the animals seem undaunted by environmental threats. Overhead, the roseate spoonbills glide, their electric pink wings bright against the azure sky. In the mud, the alligators wallow, cooling their brown backs in the sun. Off the mangrove-ringed shores, grey dolphins frolic, leaping in circles and trapping fish in the whirlpools that they create.

Venture deep into Florida’s Everglades, and you seem to venture back in time. At first glance, the flora and fauna may seem as robust as they were a thousand years ago, before six million human settlers descended on this stretch of swamps, salt marshes and sand. But that time is long gone, and the sugar cane fields and the strip malls have changed life here irrevocably.

Consequences for
flora, fauna and
Floridians alike.

“The story of the Everglades is the story of the canary in the coal mine,” says Matt Schwartz, director of the newly-formed Hollywood, Florida-based South Florida Wildlands Association. “Development has devastated local wildlife. And if we don’t move to change, the humans could be next.”

The Everglades is so rich in animal, plant and marine life that it has been called “the most bio-diverse place on planet earth.” But in 2010 it was placed on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites. It is the only such site in the United States, and saving it may prove even trickier than outrunning its alligators, which can reportedly speed at 30 miles per hour.

Before pollution here hits the tipping point and environmental health problems (such as breast cancer related to pesticide exposure) begin manifesting in humans, environmentalists may yet succeed in safeguarding the Everglades. Or they could fail in their century-long quest, with dire consequences for flora, fauna and Floridians alike.

Fragile Bodies

How did the Everglades become a swamp of controversy? It started 120 years ago, when developers began building 2,000 miles of canals that now divert millions of gallons of water each day from the swamp to local farms and towns. These canals both supply local drinking water and keep Florida’s land, which hovers near sea level, dry for enough for human settlement. But now, it is far too dry for many native species’ optimum health.

Today, the Everglades is 60 miles wide and runs 300 miles long from the Kissimmee River two-thirds of the way down the length of Florida all the way to the state’s southern tip. But once upon a time, it was five times its present-day, 1.5-million-acre size. “The Everglades used to start toward the northern end of the state,” says Schwartz. “It was filled with water sloughs, dotted with tree hammocks, and teeming with life.”

As early as 1938, Boy Scouts of America co-founder Dan Beard urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect the Everglades’ wildlife before species died out. In 1974, environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass in an effort to draw attention to the area’s beauty and fragility. Activists — most of them women, and many from the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs — have succeeded preserving much of Everglades as park land. Even so, environmentalists’ pleas have, in many cases, fallen on deaf ears. Over the decades, authorities continued rubber-stamping the building of more canals. Where white pelicans once nested and rainbow trout once swam, neon signs now advertise manicures, massages and margaritas.

As the Everglades has shrunk in size, pesticides and agricultural runoff have polluted the water that remains, turning it from grey-green to dark brown with algae, and killing off fish and plants that are unable to adapt to this change. No longer able to feast on these fish and plants, the Everglades’ wading birds have declined in population by an estimated 90 percent. Herons and egrets still perch on the shrubs and hardwood trees. But with each passing year, say activists, they fill fewer and fewer branches.

Today, 68 Everglades species, including the wood stork and the American crocodile, are endangered or threatened. Many of these species, like the Florida panther that numbers less than 100 cats in total, are found nowhere else on planet earth.

Paddles Forward, Gusts Back

In the past two years, the battle to save the Everglades seemed to finally gain some ground. But many of these small-to-midsized victories have proven to be Pyrrhic ones.

Male frogs with
eggs in their

Activists had hoped to elevate 11 miles of the Tamiani Trail — a Tampa-to-Miami highway that bisects the Everglades and acts not just as a road, but as a dam because its foundations block the flow of water through the swamp. But in the end, after a flurry of controversy, only one mile will be lifted.

Florida had hoped to buy wetlands from the Clewiston, Florida-based United States Sugar Corporation to protect that area from development. But it only managed to purchase 26,790 acres — 14 percent of the area originally earmarked.

A federal appeals court moved to stop the mining of 5,600 acres of wetlands. But the Army Corps of Engineers recently cleared the way for the mining project to double to 10,044 acres. Still stinging from these setbacks, environmentalists are now fighting the expansion of off-road vehicle trails, and the construction of power generators at a nuclear plant on Biscayne Bay.

Though they may yet win these battles, other, even more serious threats still loom. In the future, climate-changed-induced sea level rise will likely kill even more of the Everglades’ flora and fauna. And oil from last year’s BP disaster in the Gulf could wind its way into the swamp, wreaking further havoc with animals and plants that are struggling to survive there.

The Big Question

All this devastation would be just another ecological sob story if the Everglades were no more than parkland — a patchwork of state and federal preserves that draw one million visitors per year.

The sad truth, however, is that the people who visit this area — and the millions who live on its perimeter — are likely to be affected by pollution, too.

In the Everglades, biologists have discovered alligators with stunted penises, female fish with XY chromosomes and male frogs with eggs in their testicles. All have been negatively affected by pesticides that mimic the female hormone estrogen, according to University of Florida studies. And in women, these pesticides have been shown to trigger breast cancer, diabetes, infertility, miscarriage and early puberty, reports the Environmental Working Group.

Geologists warn that Everglades mining projects could spur the overgrowth of water-borne cryptosporidium — organisms that can cause severe gastrointestinal illness in humans.

Toxicologists warn that the mercury drifting into the area from industrial sources is being transformed by the Everglades’ abundant bacteria into methyl mercury, which causes neurological damage in babies if their mothers are exposed to it during pregnancy. Already, many local Floridians have grown so concerned about mercury poisoning that they refuse to fish in the Everglades’ waters. For fear of this poisoning, people selling alligator burgers on the roadside here no longer harvest alligators locally, but instead, import them from Louisiana.

Will we stem the threat of these pollutants before people as well as pelicans pay the price? “That’s the big question,” says Cesar Becerra, the publisher of The Everglades Magazine. “And it’s a question that’s even bigger than the Everglades. If we lose this battle, we might never begin other conservation projects in the U.S. that are crucial for animals and humans alike.”

Like the Everglades’ vanishing species, environmental initiatives need more support, lest they find themselves stagnating in the swamp of politics. If the Everglades efforts fail, warn eco-activists, other environmental health campaigns may face the same fate; if they succeed, people will demonstrate a miraculous ecological recovery that holds hope for the lives and health of every species.

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance health reporter whose work has appeared in Women’s eNews, Ms. Magazine and On Earth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Also see: Moving the Silence: Rachel Carson’s Groundbreaking Work by Theresa Noll in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Life’s Precious Trio: Women, Water and Health by Elayne Clift in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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